Return to The Grass Arena
Perhaps the greatest trick a writer can ever pull is to write about a familiar subject that has been covered a thousand times before, and bring a fresh insight to it, one that makes readers understand the subject in a profound way. If this is the case, then John Healy is something of a literary genius.
Healy’s life is as disturbing as it is implausible – he is made of the kind of stuff you couldn’t make up. He is, as Eoin Butler wrote in a short article for this newspaper’s Magazine, a “former boxer, soldier, deserter, wino and mugger” (you can read a longer piece by Eoin on Healy here). A chunk of his life was spent living rough in London, among the beggars and schemers, the addicts and derelicts, the ill and the plain unfortunate. His account of this life, The Grass Arena, is astonishing. It is brutal and unapologetic, and when it was published in 1988, it became something of a sensation. Healy had written about alcoholism, addiction and homelessness in a way that couldn’t fail to impact upon a readership. There are few books or articles that I’ve read that so brilliantly grasp the nettle (though this interview with Paul McGrath does spring to mind).
Then there is the fact that, while in prison, he replaced alcohol with chess, and rapidly became a tournament champion, beating grandmasters and even writing a book on chess tactics.
This would be enough for most people, but not Healy. Following a dispute with his publishers he disappeared from the public eye, until a surprise appearance at the Cúirt Literary Festival in 2007, and tomorrow night sees the broadcasting of John Healy: You Have Been Warned, a documentary on this extraordinary man of letters made by Paul Duane (who, incidentally, took the pictures that accompanied Eoin Butler’s article at the weekend). A longer, more in-depth version is due for limited cinema release in the near future.
Healy is a singular character, as evidenced by Eoin’s interview and this excellent interview with Erwin James (himself a former inmate), and he apparently has a cache of as-yet-unpublished work. Here’s hoping it sees the light of day. In the meantime, we have The Grass Arena and Duane’s documentary to savour.
John Healy: You Have Been Warned is on RTÉ1 on Tuesday, 10.15pm.